Briefing Note: The All-Flash Array is Software AND Hardware

Pure Storage Announces M Series

One of the questions facing all-flash array vendors as they come to market is do they take a software first or hardware first strategy when it comes to system development? The advantage of the software approach is that the vendor is able to deliver a robust feature set and get to market quickly. The downside is by using off-the-shelf storage servers the hardware is not exactly optimized for flash storage. The hardware approach does lead to very high performance and highly dense storage systems but generally the software is behind the curve or it is bolted on as an afterthought. With their latest announcement the //m series, Pure Storage is attempting to bring the software and hardware camps together.

Hardware vs. Software

Obviously, flash storage is different from hard disk storage but the difference is far more than its performance advantage. Flash storage also has density and power advantages. But the software focused all-flash array vendors, in a nod to time to market, have had to use off the shelf hardware, which meant using storage servers whose drive bays were designed for 3.5” hard disk drives, which they instead filled with 3.5” solid state disk drives (SSD). These SSDs don’t take advantage of flash density and end up wasting space. The result is low hardware research and development costs but less than ideal use of flash technology.

Hardware focused vendors took the time and money to develop their own custom hardware that fully optimized the flash experience, in terms of density, power efficiency and performance. But again, they did this at the cost of being behind on software, often counting on third parties to fill the gap.

Pure Storage //m

A couple of years ago when Pure Storage received their first big round of funding, I remember sitting with CEO Scott Dietzen and him stating that they would begin to invest in developing hardware more optimized for flash storage when the time was right. With the introduction of the //m Pure Storage is indicating that the time is now.

The //m combines Pure Storage’s rich software heritage with a platform that takes better advantage of flash properties allowing them to create a storage system that can deliver up to 150TB’s (after optimization) of useable capacity in the initial 3U chassis. It’s modular design allows for a scale-up configuration that can reach about 500TBs of capacity while delivering 300,000 IOPS (using 32k blocks), 9GB/s bandwidth and less than 1 millisecond of latency. As we discuss in our article “Three new considerations for Scale-Out and Scale-Up All-Flash Architectures” for most environments the scale up vs. scale out debate is a non-issue.

Two achieve this density Pure Storage designed a new module for its SSDs. The module has two SSDs instead of one, delivering up to 2TB of capacity per module. Twenty of these modules can be installed in the base unit for 40TB’s raw, factor in Pure Storage’s powerful data optimization engine and you end up with about 140TB’s usable (mileage will vary of course) capacity.

The unit leverages as 12Gb/s SAS fabric for connecting the drives to the controller, with PCIe/NVMe on the roadmap. For connectivity to the storage network, the system has six slots available for either 8/16Gps FC or 10GbE. The system also has two onboard 10GbE slots. The //m comes with Pure’s standard dual HA controllers and can support up to four additional shelves that increase capacity by either 12 or 24TBs.

Cloud Analytics

In addition to the new hardware Pure Storage also announced two other initiatives. First is a cloud analytics package called Pure1. This is a cloud based management application that allows Pure Storage customers to manage their arrays from anywhere and any device. It will also allow Pure to provide proactive support to their customers. In the future we expect Pure Storage to leverage this data across customers to allow them to create better storage software, better proactive support and implementation optimization. As we discuss in our article “Leveraging Analytics for Smarter Storage Systems” this is a trend we expect an increasing number of vendors to adopt. Pure Storage joins Nimble and Cloudian in offering this capability.

Evergreen Storage

The Evergreen Storage initiative asks users to re-think their storage refresh cycle. Traditionally, every three years or so, storage infrastructure needs to be refreshed. In the past this was driven by capacity and performance concerns as well as “motivation” by hardware vendors. That motivation was often the egregious over pricing of out-year maintenance.

Two years ago, in what was at the time considered to be a highly controversial article, “The 10 Year All-Flash Array – Will Your All-Flash Array Wear Out?”, we predicted that flash systems have the performance and, thanks to data efficiency, have the capacity to last ten years. Pure Storage has been one of the first vendors to embrace this concept. Their modular hardware combined with their software focus plus their ability to upgrade hardware controller generations online and their forever flash program which features flat and fair maintenance pricing leads Pure Storage to believe they can deliver a ten-year storage system. This creates a significant business model disruption to legacy storage vendors that count on the three-year storage refresh.

StorageSwiss Take

While under attack from the biggest names in the industry, Pure Storage continues to march along. They achieved 300% growth in FY 2015 and were named a leader in Gartner’s inaugural All-Flash Array Magic Quadrant chart. Although we are sometimes critical of the Gartner’s analysis, being a leader for such a young company is quite an achievement. The //m series addresses many of our concerns about software focus of the Pure Storage strategy, while not going all out to proprietary hardware. Their cloud based analytics puts them in step with a few other next generation storage companies that are leveraging big data to better support their customers. Finally, their Evergreen Storage initiative is sure to disrupt the sales tactics of legacy storage vendors.

This announcement is the next logical step in Pure Storage’s evolution. They improved on hardware, complimenting an already powerful software stack and made life more complicated for some of their legacy competition while making it better for data centers.

Twelve years ago George Crump founded Storage Switzerland with one simple goal; to educate IT professionals about all aspects of data center storage. He is the primary contributor to Storage Switzerland and is a heavily sought after public speaker. With over 25 years of experience designing storage solutions for data centers across the US, he has seen the birth of such technologies as RAID, NAS and SAN, Virtualization, Cloud and Enterprise Flash. Prior to founding Storage Switzerland he was CTO at one of the nation's largest storage integrators where he was in charge of technology testing, integration and product selection.

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